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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Apart


NOT AFRAID TO PROVOKE Barack Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. Former students say he tested many of the ideas of his presidential campaign in the classroom.


CHICAGO — The young law professor stood apart in too many ways to count. At a school where economic analysis was all the rage, he taught rights, race and gender. Other faculty members dreamed of tenured positions; he turned them down. While most colleagues published by the pound, he never completed a single work of legal scholarship.

At a formal institution, Barack Obama was a loose presence, joking with students about their romantic prospects, using first names, referring to case law one moment and “The Godfather” the next. He was also an enigmatic one, often leaving fellow faculty members guessing about his precise views.

Mr. Obama, now the junior senator from Illinois and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, spent 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School. Most aspiring politicians do not dwell in the halls of academia, and few promising young legal thinkers toil in state legislatures. Mr. Obama planted a foot in each, splitting his weeks between an elite law school and the far less rarefied atmosphere of the Illinois Senate.

Before he outraised every other presidential primary candidate in American history, Mr. Obama marched students through the thickets of campaign finance law. Before he helped redraw his own State Senate district, making it whiter and wealthier, he taught districting as a racially fraught study in how power is secured. And before he posed what may be the ultimate test of racial equality — whether Americans will elect a black president — he led students through African-Americans’ long fight for equal status.

Standing in his favorite classroom in the austere main building, sharp-witted students looming above him, Mr. Obama refined his public speaking style, his debating abilities, his beliefs.

“He tested his ideas in classrooms,” said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague. Every seminar hour brought a new round of, “Is affirmative action justified? Under what circumstances?” as Mr. Hutchinson put it.

But Mr. Obama’s years at the law school are also another chapter — see United States Senate, c. 2006 — in which he seemed as intently focused on his own political rise as on the institution itself. Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was well liked at the law school, yet he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage. The Chicago faculty is more rightward-leaning than that of other top law schools, but if teaching alongside some of the most formidable conservative minds in the country had any impact on Mr. Obama, no one can quite point to it.

“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”

Mr. Obama had other business on his mind, embarking on five political races during his 12 years at the school. Teaching gave him satisfaction, along with a perch and a paycheck, but he was impatient with academic debates over “whether to drop a footnote or not drop a footnote,” said Abner J. Mikva, a mentor whose own career has spanned Congress, the federal bench and the same law school.

Douglas Baird, another colleague, remembers once asking Mr. Obama to assess potential candidates for governor.

“First of all, I’m not running for governor, “ Mr. Obama told him. “But if I did, I would expect you to support me.”

He was a third-year state senator at the time.

Popular and Enigmatic

Mr. Obama arrived at the law school in 1991 thanks to Michael W. McConnell, a conservative scholar who is now a federal appellate judge. As president of The Harvard Law Review, Mr. Obama had impressed Mr. McConnell with editing suggestions on an article; on little more than that, the law school gave him a fellowship, which amounted to an office and a computer, which he used to write his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”

The school had almost no black faculty members, a special embarrassment given its location on the South Side. Its sleek halls bordered a neighborhood crumbling with poverty and neglect. In his 2000 Congressional primary race, Representative Bobby L. Rush, a former Black Panther running for re-election, used Mr. Obama’s ties to the school to label him an egghead and an elitist.

At the school, Mr. Obama taught three courses, ascending to senior lecturer, a title otherwise carried only by a few federal judges. His most traditional course was in the due process and equal protection areas of constitutional law. His voting rights class traced the evolution of election law, from the disenfranchisement of blacks to contemporary debates over districting and campaign finance. Mr. Obama was so interested in the subject that he helped Richard Pildes, a professor at New York University, develop a leading casebook in the field.

His most original course, a historical and political seminar as much as a legal one, was on racism and law. Mr. Obama improvised his own textbook, including classic cases like Brown v. Board of Education, and essays by Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as conservative thinkers like Robert H. Bork.

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